Biodiversity in Belize
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The annual outbreak of colorful caterpillars of the Frangipani Hawkmoth (Pseudosphinx tetrio)
Nearly every year, we see the spectacle of the brightly colored caterpillars of the Frangipani Hawkmoth (Pseudosphinx tetrio). The bright red, black and yellow colors of this caterpillar advertise the unpalatability of the caterpillars to experienced predators. Indeed, prey that are not edible to predators are predicted to gain by exhibiting conspicuous and very recognizable colors; experienced predators can then correctly identify and subsequently avoid attacking such prey. The color pattern of this caterpillar are classical colors used by aposematic insects. Pseudophinx tetrio caterpillar
Squirrel Cuckoo

Such "aposematic" color patterns are found everywhere throughout the world of insects, from black and yellow-striped stinging wasps to black and red, bitter-tasting ladybird beetles, or brightly-colored, poisonous tropical butterflies (see also Janzen, 1980).

Being poisonous and aposematic does not always help. Cuckoos are known for being able to deal with hairy and/or poisonous caterpillars and we have seen the Squirrel Cuckoo to the left coming back to a caterpillar infested tree for yet another snack! The Cuckoos simple whack the caterpillars against a branch until the poisonous gut content is gone and then swallows the remains.

Usually during November - December, we find these caterpillars. They can be very common and partly defoliate their hostplant. The hostplant is the Frangipani or Plumeria rubra although I have been shown pictures of this caterpillar feeding on an Allamanda sp. Both belong to the Apocynaceae family.

During the December month of 2003, these caterpillars were so common at our place Green Hills, that they completely defoliated the shrubs they were feeding on and were even forced to eat the main stem, since they depleted all available leaves. Although the damage to the shrubs is severe, we do expect the shrubs to recover.

The spectacle is always interesting to tourists and other people interested in Natural History.

Many wonder what beautiful butterfly these caterpillars will produce, but unfortunately, the result is a dull gray moth (but a very large one) which is rarely seen and flies most commonly during May-June and September-October.

Pseudophinx tetrio Male
Plumeria rubra acutifolia

The hostplant Plumeria rubra acutifolia. Frangipani or West Indian Jasmine, is native to Belize and is a tree or shrub that in nature can reach about 40 feet (12 meters). It is found mostly on steep limestone hills and other dry places.

The cultivated form of the Frangipana is Plumeria rubra f. rubra and comes in a variety of colors. The fragrant flowers are used as Leis in Hawaii and other tropical islands.

Another Plumeria species in Belize is Plumeria obtusifolia which is commonly found in dry forests in the North of Belize

Literature:

Janzen DH. 1980. Two potential coral snake mimics in a tropical deciduous forest. Biotropica 12: 77-78.

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Last modified: December 8, 2009